"Taxi Driver"

The picture that changed cinema history and American history, plus a detailed technical deconstruction.


Andrew O'Hehir
July 17, 2000 11:00PM (UTC)

"Taxi Driver"
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Harvey Keitel and Cybill Shepherd
Columbia; widescreen (original 1.85:1 aspect ratio)
Extras: Making-of documentary, interactive screenplay, more

How much more can be said or written about "Taxi Driver," perhaps the quintessential 1970s American film? More people saw "Jaws" and "Star Wars," but "Taxi Driver" changed not only the course of cinema history but of American history at large, inspiring would-be presidential assassin John Hinckley and sparking a debate about violence in the media that continues to this day. Robert De Niro's extraordinary Travis Bickle -- almost an animal or a noble savage in his ignorance of human relations -- distills the anxiety and disconnection of his time, traveling like a damaged Virgil through a Manhattan underworld that seems as distant from contemporary New York as 18th century London is. (The block where Jodie Foster turns tricks in the film is now, in real life, the chichi heart of the East Village.)

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Yet the Bickles are with us always, wherever a lonely man sits in a hotel room and dreams of revenge against the world. As the excellent DVD documentary explains, De Niro, Martin Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader were so in tune on "Taxi Driver" that they never directly discussed its theme or meaning. Perhaps that explains our sense that Travis' odyssey is both inevitable and fundamentally inscrutable.

When I first saw the film in my early teens, I thought Schrader's final switcheroo was cheap; now I can see that cheap doesn't always mean untrue. Along with eloquent interviews with the principals (although Albert Brooks and Harvey Keitel have little to say), the documentary included on the DVD collector's edition offers a fascinating technical deconstruction of the climactic shootout sequence, one of the most complicated ever filmed. You can even see Scorsese's crudely drawn storyboards juxtaposed with the actual shots, and Bickle-level enthusiasts can click back and forth from a full copy of the shooting script to the corresponding scene.

My one caveat is not necessarily minor: The DVD transfer, presumably drawn from Scorsese's 1996 restoration of the film, seems exceedingly dark. My decade-old television may be partly to blame, but I had to turn the brightness control all the way up to penetrate the deeply saturated colors (especially the predominant reds) of cinematographer Michael Chapman's compositions. Still, no film buff can afford to live without this disc; from Bernard Herrmann's mesmerizing score -- his last, and surely one of his greatest -- to Keitel's oozy Barry White-inspired pimp to Foster's gangly uncertainty, "Taxi Driver" is imperfect, dangerous, immortal.

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Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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